Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. 

For some reason or other, the club ended up reading no fewer than three modern reimaginings of Greek myths. I have yet to read Circe, but I did read Madeline Miller’s other book, The Song of Achilles. This book, by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, takes a look at the story of Penelope in The Odyssey from two different perspectives. The first is that of Penelope, who feels that the men who told the original myth got a number of things rather wrong about her. The second is from the point of view of the twelve slave girls who were hanged after Odysseus’ return. 

The majority of the book is told in prose by Penelope. She is rather interesting in her perspective. As we ended up discussing, the tough part was that her actual actions were rather constrained in The Odyssey (and in the lesser known myths about her, such as her origin story), so she couldn’t exactly act differently. On the other hand, Atwood is strongly feminist, so she tried to make Penelope a stronger and more interesting character than just the “faithful woman standing by her philandering man.” There was some disagreement in our club as to how successful Atwood was at this. Some found the reimagined Penelope to be whiny and ineffective. At minimum, I would say that she is an unreliable narrator whose motives are not as pure as she pretends. 

In between chapters, the Chorus sings - a chorus consisting of the murdered slave girls. Their voices are snarky and sarcastic, and deliver a delightful satire on the whole story. 

I was surprised to discover that this book was one of a planned series by different authors. The Canongate Myth Series was to be a series of books written by established literary authors retelling myths from around the world. Atwood’s contribution was part of the first set released. So far, 18 have been released, although only a few have turned out to be widely popular. I am tempted to at least seek out the one written by Alexander McCall Smith

Overall, I enjoyed the book, although it kind of seemed short. I imagine this is due in part to the limited material that Atwood had to work with, but may also have been one of the restrictions on the series itself, which appears to have envisioned shorter works of roughly uniform size. 

I rather liked the poetic interludes by the maids - while Atwood’s poetry isn’t on the level of the best poets, it is decent, and serves its purpose. She hits a range of genres along the way, which is kind of fun. 

I found a few lines particularly intriguing. The first is the description of Odysseus. 

And indeed the legs of Odysseus were quite short in relation to his body. It was all right when he was sitting down, but standing up he looked top-heavy. 

That’s actually a pretty good description of me: I’m 5’7”, with a 29 inch inseam. So, yeah. (My wife says I am a hobbit.) 

Helen of Troy doesn’t come off very well in this book. (Or indeed in most modern retellings.) For some reason, the idea of a manipulative woman who makes worthless men fall in love with her and start wars and such hasn’t worn well in a more egalitarian age. It is easier to identify with Athena or one of the more enterprising women in mythology than with the dazzling and shallow beauty. Here is Penelope’s scathing appraisal. 

Why is it that really beautiful people think that everyone else in the world exists merely for their amusement?

You could say that about many wealthy people too - particularly narcissists and those who inherit their wealth. I must say that Helen deserves her tarnished reputation - I would much rather have the intelligent woman than the simpering beauty who runs off with the first man willing to start a war over her.

In general, Atwood seems skeptical of the possibility of women treating each other well - the sisterhood, so to speak. In her other books as in this one, there are too many women willing to throw the others under the bus in order to profit a little more in the patriarchal systems they inhabit. In this book, it isn’t just Helen. It is Eurycleia, the old nurse of Odysseus, who seems to have a weird Freudian connection to him (and I agree with Atwood that this is very much present in The Odyssey as well.) It is also Anticleia, Odysseus’ mother. In Atwood’s telling, her most frequent expression to Penelope was “You don’t look well.” I made a full stop in my reading at this point, because this was uncomfortably close to a similar situation in my own life. I will leave it at that, without further detail. 

The consensus of our club was that, of the mythologically based books we read this year, Circe was the best. I guess I will have to read that one soon. 


Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 

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